Ryan Hart built on a family tradition on May 12 when he accepted his law degree during commencement exercises at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Hart follows in the footsteps of his father Benton attorney Murphy Hart, a 1983 law school graduate. The family tradition stretches to Ryan's grandfather Richard O. Hart, attorney and former state representative, who helped establish a law school accessible to local students who will serve in the public interest.
"This has been a great experience," Ryan Hart said of his law school career. "I've made a lot of friends whom I think will definitely be lifelong friends. This also puts things into perspective. It makes you a critical thinker and allows you to decide whether you want to do this because you have to put forth your best effort."
Commencement ceremonies for the School of Law were held in the SIU Arena. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, who served as commander of the space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission last year, was the keynote speaker.
Law School Dean Cynthia L. Fountaine said she is very proud of the legacy that Ryan Hart continues. She said at least two other law school graduates had parents who were SIU School of Law alumnus.
"Because we are a relatively young law school, having multi-generational alumni is a fairly new phenomenon for us," Fountaine said. "It is an incredibly positive endorsement of our program; the fact that our alumni send their children and grandchildren to SIU Law is a clear recognition of the outstanding legal education we provide each of our students.
"The Hart family legacy is particularly special since Ryan's grandfather Richard Hart is one of the law school's founders, and has remained a very special friend to the SIU School of Law," she said. "I am especially pleased to see that he and his family remain confident in the quality of legal education provided by the law school that he helped to establish."
The law school began in 1973; its first graduating class was in 1976.
Richard Hart, now senior partner in Hart & Hart, a general practice law firm in Benton that dates back to 1887, was instrumental in helping establish the SIU School of Law while a state representative from 1968 to 1978. His work included sponsoring legislation for the $7 million Hiram H. Lesar Law Building, and also convincing many people that the law school needed to be in Carbondale rather than Edwardsville because of a lack of attorneys in this region.
"If the law school wasn't in Carbondale who knows whether Murphy or Ryan would have been interested in going somewhere out of the area to go to law school," Richard Hart said. "I'm glad it was there for them and I'm glad it's there for other students who no longer have to travel very far to go to law school and who can open up practices in their own communities."
Now in his 58th year in private practice, Hart earned a Founders Medal from the law school in 1999. He's pleased with the opportunities that the nationally recognized law school provides students, and the work they do once they graduate.
Ryan Hart is the fifth generation attorney in the Hart family -- dating back to his great-great grandfather William Henry Hart. A 2005 graduate of Benton Consolidated High School, he earned his bachelor's degree in business administration in 2009 from Millikin University.
Ryan said although the legal profession is a family business and he worked a little for the firm while growing up, it has never really been dinner table discussion. With his finance background he hopes to pursue opportunities in commercial banking and plans to also earn a Master of Business Administration degree in a few years.
Earning both a law degree and MBA will broaden his employment potential, Ryan said. In addition to working for his family, he has worked as a law clerk for Carbondale attorney R. Courtney Hughes, a 1985 SIU School of Law graduate.
Ryan said there has never been any pressure to join the family law firm, but that there is a position there if he wants to. Richard Hart agrees, saying that his father never pressured him about joining the family firm when he graduated from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
Richard Hart's son Murphy, however, said that entering private practice and working alongside his father is all that he wanted to do.
I'm doing what I always wanted to do and that is practice law with my dad here in Benton," Murphy Hart said. In addition to Ryan, a second son Caleb is in the culinary arts program at Rend Lake College.
Murphy said his emotions showed as his son accepted his law degree, noting how he felt during his hooding ceremony 28 years ago. The law school allows many students to stay close to home to pursue dreams and, as importantly, remain here to work in the area, he said.
"I think we are examples of that," Murphy said.
"We are certainly very proud of the fact that he followed in our footsteps and went to SIU Law, and that he had the opportunity to do that," he said.
And if Ryan Hart wants to join the family law firm at some time?
"It will always be there for him," Murphy said.